Ghost Ship

ghost ship film review


Horror movie ‘Ghost Ship’ only got 13% on Rotten Tomatoes but it promises to scare you shipless. With its pathos and cheese wire on the dancefloor, it’s a guilty pleasure that’s tense, tragic and strangely human.

Buy on Amazon: Ghost Ship [DVD] [2003]

Taking the traditional ‘haunted house’ storyline and setting it on a long abandoned cruise liner, Ghost Ship (2002) follows a salvage crew as they inevitably go insane, turn on each other and get killed in various combinations of the above. It was widely panned by critics and with a plot so full of gaping holes it comes as no surprise that the ship is sinking. And yet I couldn’t love this film more. Not even if you covered it in chocolate.

As I said, the critics are against me. Rotten Tomatoes give it just 13% and some of the reviews achieve haiku levels of elegance in their chilly one-liner dismissals. And no matter how much bad press a film gets you know it’s beneath contempt when you can pack all of it into a single sentence. And yet Ghost Ship narrowly missed being a much cleverer film. It started life as a screenplay called Chimera, a relatively bloodless psychological thriller. Once you know where to look the changes are fairly easy to detect: Desmond Harrington does a great job as the bad guy but his role as the antagonist is so obviously tacked on that it’s hard not to see the joins. His explanation of why he’s the antagonist is similarly iffy and (although ghosts that screw with people just because they’re ghosts are a pet peeve of mine) I can’t help but think the script might be stronger if his motivation was left unexplained. No, really. It’s just that silly.

And yet, somehow, it works. From the opening flashback, where a whole dance floor is cut in half with cheese wire to the final predictable twist I’m glued to the screen. I’m not saying that those scenes aren’t both inherently cheesy, or even that they are the cheesiest that Ghost Ship has to offer, just that it has enough charm to pull them off.

Part of this is down to the actors. Apparently they signed on before the script was rewritten (I’ve even heard rumours that a lot of changes were made in post production) and it shows. The plot might be unconvincing but the characters are so engaging you barely notice they spend more time idly wandering around the deserted ship than actually salvaging it. It isn’t even that all of them are particularly fleshed out script-wise: somehow they manage to create distinct personalities and a real sense of chemistry from not very much. You absolutely believe that these people live together, work together, eat together crammed into a small tugboat for months at a time and yet somehow still have a deep and genuine affection for each other. When one of them dies they’re not just afraid for themselves: you get a real sense of the shock and horror of a friend no longer existing. Simply put, the fact they care about each other makes us care about them.

The ship itself is also a kind of character and, as far as looks go, it gives even the stunning Julianna Marguiles a run for her money. The juxtaposition of sheer size and (once) luxurious interiors, elegance and dilapidation is really clever. The film isn’t afraid to switch between a ruined ballroom and the flooded and distinctly utilitarian under decks. This variety of settings makes the ship feel big, even as the characters become increasingly trapped in it. It also looks as if it’s been abandoned for forty years: instead of faux-gothic decadence the damage done by forty years of sea is real and immediate. The set designers aren’t afraid to let the ship look ugly but they never let us forget that it used to be beautiful.

The thing about Ghost Ship is that it feels like a better film than it is. If you watch it critically and try to tear it apart you’ll probably hate it. But if you go with it and give it a chance you’ll find a guilty pleasure that is also tense, tragic and strangely human.

Amazon: Drag Me to Hell [DVD] [2009]